Thursday, December 5, 2013

SPINNING BASICS: Tools to Spin With: Spindle Spinning Wheels

There are two basic types of spinning wheels: spindle wheels and flyer-and-bobbin wheels (also called treadle wheels).

A spindle wheel is a wheel that has a spindle almost exactly like a support spindle, but it's driven by a wheel.

There are a lot of different kinds of spindle wheels. The first ones invented were in the East and were called Charkas, which is the Sanskrit word for "wheel." They were similar to this kind of a wheel.

There are also small, folding charkas that fold up into a hardback book size and shape (usually called a book charka), and larger versions called briefcase charkas, etc.

The spindle wheels that you'll see most often are called great wheels, walking wheels and wool wheels.

They are all basically a spindle that has support, and that is driven by a wheel that is usually turned by hand, not by a treadle.

This is the kind of wheel that sleeping beauty ran afoul of. Spindle wheels got a lot more use than spindles did, once they were introduced, and they frequently had spindles that were metal. The amount of use that they got, over a period of time, tended to sharpen the tip of the spindle until it was really dangerous. Add that to the fact that sheep go out and play every day in the dirt (you know, the stuff that has a lot of tetanus organisms), and it's no wonder sleeping beauty could get seriously hurt on that wheel!

Wikipedia has a whole collection of photos of different kinds of wheels and lots more information. I'm going to do more articles about treadle wheels, but you can read ahead here.

Great wheels were called that because they have a large wheel. The name walking wheel came from the fact that a spinner would have to stand, and would usually walk to spin a longer thread before she went back to wind it onto the spindle. The name wool wheel comes from the fact that the larger spindle wheels were made to spin wool, and had lower ratios, which was just what was needed to spin wool.

When a spinner refers to ratios in connection with a wheel, it tells you how many twists the wheel adds to the singles being spun for each revolution of the wheel.

Most of the charkas were built with the intention of spinning cotton, so they had higher ratios.  To give you a better idea, the bottom ratio for treadle wheels will give you 3-1/2 twists per one revolution of the wheel, where the top end is more like 22:1. But some of the charkas would give you more like 36:1 to really add a lot of twist fast.

With almost every spindle wheel, you'll find a wheel with a drive cord. The drive cord will drive a whorl, and sometimes they have several whorls close together with different diameters so you can make the spindle go faster or slower to suit you by changing which whorl the drive cord is on. Some charkas have an accelerator where the wheel turns a whorl on an axle with another whorl that has a drive cord that drives the whorl on the actual spindle. This is usually called a Minor head, after the gentleman who invented it, and it's a way to get more revolutions out of the spindle for each revolution of the wheel.

Some of the book charkas and similar ones are more complicated because they have extra parts that allow them to fold, but this covers the basics of spindle wheels.

Friday, November 22, 2013

SPINNING BASICS: Tools to Spin With: Spindles 2

I have to stop writing these when I'm not really awake (like now).

I intended to write more about spindles and hit send without thinking.

There are a lot of things that affect how fast/slow and how long/short a spindle spins.

As mentioned before, a thinner shaft makes for a quicker spin to start with. It makes sense, because if you snap it between your fingers, for instance, your fingers move at a certain speed, essentially, in a straight line. That movement is translated into a circular spin by rotating the shaft. The narrower the shaft, the further around the circumference you'll move the spindle with the same snap.

The bigger the measurement around the outside of the shaft, the slower you'll move it.

For instance, with a narrow shaft, a snap of the fingers might make the spindle go around twice. If the snap moves what's between your fingers one inch, but the shaft measures a half an inch around, you'll spin it twice. But if it measures a whole inch around, you'll only spin it one full revolution.

Another major factor in spin speed and length of spinning time is the whorl.

A small diameter whorl tends to spin faster than a wide diameter whorl.

But a small diameter whorl will lose it's speed and slow down faster than a wide diameter whorl, which will keep spinning, if more slowly.

You also have to take into account the weight, and where in the whorl it's distributed.

If most of the weight is close to the center, it will tend to spin faster than if most of the weight is toward the outside.

It's a balancing act as far as trading off speed for length of spin. If you're spinning lace yarn, for instance, you'll want a lot of spin, otherwise it'll take forever to get enough twist into the yarn/thread to hold together.

Other factors include the support point for a support spindle. You want the point that the spindle spins on to be as small as possible to generate the least friction. My Tibetan spindle has a brass point on the bottom that's fairly sharp specifically to lower friction when the spindle spins in the bowl.

The other factor is overall weight. The heavier the spindle overall, the more energy it takes to spin it, but the longer it will spin.

If you happen to be talking about a drop spindle, though, the weight of the spindle will make a big difference in the thickness of the yarn you can spin with it. If you try to spin a yarn that's too fine with a drop spindle that's too heavy, the yarn will keep breaking before it will get enough twist in it to be strong enough to hold the spindle's weight. But if your drop spindle is too light or you're trying to spin yarn that is too thick for the spindle, it will tend to make the spindle slow down quickly and stop. If you're not paying attention and try to let it spin, it will eventually (and fairly quickly) stop and begin to spin in the opposite direction, unspinning the yarn and falling.

The overall weight issue is complicated by the fact that, because you keep winding more and more yarn onto the spindle, it keeps increasing it's overall weight the longer you spin. So, if you're using it as a drop spindle, it may be too light when you first start, just right when it's half full, but too heavy when you finally give up and wind the yarn off onto something else to ply it.

This particular information is something that you may find a bit too much at this point, but is something to refer to if you have a problem with a particular spindle in the future.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

SPINNING BASICS: Tools to Spin With: Spindles

So far, we've gotten what yarn is, but we're not up to how to make it yet. You'll need tools to make it.

Spinning tools come in two broad categories: spindles and spinning wheels. These come in categories, too. Let's start with spindles and cover wheels in the next post.


Spindles come in two broad categories. There are support spindles and drop spindles. Actually, there are a few that can use both or a combination of support and drop. It pays to learn both ways of spinning on a spindle. But we'll simplify to just support and drop spindles.

Support Spindles

As you might guess, support spindles are ones that are supported while they're used. There are many kinds of support spindles, and they're often used with a spinning bowl to keep them from traveling while in use. The bottom of the spindle is usually placed in a bowl, and the spindle spun with a finger snap on the shaft. Most support spindles are used this way.

The fact that the spindle is supported makes it much easier to learn on. You can use a spindle that's too heavy to be used as a drop spindle with the yarn you're trying to make, and it will still work well. And I find it easier to draft and add twist with this kind of a spindle.

A Navajo spindle has the bottom of it placed on the floor or in a bowl (if it tends to skid on the floor) usually on the right side for spinning (Z twist), and the left side for plying (S twist), and spun by rubbing the top of the shaft against your thigh with your hand held flat. Because you're not actually using hand dexterity, this is a good choice for spinners because you're using your arm muscles to provide the spin, not your hand muscles. So, you can give your hands a rest from knitting.

Find out more here.

A low whorl drop spindle can be used as a support spindle if it has a nice, pointed bottom end, and they often do, for versatility. They can be spun in a bigger bowl, or a shallow bowl.

There are many different kinds of support spindles, and many are named for where they became popular, so you'll see them called names like Tibetan, Russian, Andean, and much more. You can search for spindles on sites like Etsy, and if you want a support spindle, you should search for it with those words. If you check Etsy for this, you'll also find a lot of spinning bowls, although you can use any bowl that has kind of a scooped out inside. A bowl that has a flat bottom inside isn't as good for a spinning bowl. You can also find many videos on how to use these different spindles on YouTube. Here's a link for Tibetan spindle spinning:

Drop Spindles

Drop spindles are, as you might suspect, given some spin and then dropped. They're harder to master at first because they are the weight they are. If you have a spindle that's too heavy for the yarn you want to spin, it's going to break the yarn before it has enough twist and fall to the ground. If you choose one that's too light, you're going to have a hard time getting it to spin. The twist you're adding with the spindle will be strong enough to resist twisting, and start untwisting instead. You need to watch for both of these conditions and modify the yarn you're making to be compatible with the spindle, or change to a spindle that works better with the kind of yarn you want to spin.

Drop spindles mostly come in either high or low whorl varieties. Either can be snapped in the fingers or you can raise your leg and rub it against your thigh to twirl it before dropping it. I'd recommend the thigh rub, because it will save your hands.


There are a few spindles that can be used either way. Low whorl drop spindles can be spun in a bowl. An Akha spindle has a mid whorl, and is usually used supported in the hand, but sometimes, after twist is inserted, it's spun against the thigh and dropped to insert even more twist. See it here.

Turkish spindles are usually considered to be drop spindles, but, as with other low whorl spindles, can be used in a bowl if they have a nice, sharp point at the bottom.

General Info About Spindles

The thin long center part of the spindle is called the shaft. A thin shaft will give you more twist for your effort, but you don't want it so thin that it will break easily.

The wider part of the spindle is usually circular, but could be square, triangular,  a straight piece, two straight pieces, a bead or just a wider part of the shaft. It's called a whorl.

Spindles sometimes have a hook at one end to catch the yarn and hold it to make it possible to spin more quickly and easily. Hooks are seen more often on drop spindles. The alternative to a hook is a shaft that narrows to a point. There are pros and cons to each.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spinning Basics: Twist Direction

You may have noticed in the previous post that I spoke about twisting fibers in one direction to spin them and the opposite direction to ply them.

But that gets awfully confusing. How can you tell which direction is intended? How can you describe it to someone else?

Spinners have an easy way of describing it. They call the spin direction either S or Z.

It's easy to understand this. Hold a piece of yarn up so it's vertical. What you'll probably see first is the ply twist. It either slants from upper left to lower right, which is the direction of the center part of the letter S, so it's ply twist is called S.

If the slant is from upper right to lower left, then the twist is called Z twist because it's in the direction of the center part of the letter Z.

If you're testing a singles or something that you need to know which direction to ply in, you can see the fibers going in these directions and you know to ply in the opposite direction.

If you spin or ply Z on a wheel, the wheel (as you view it when you sit at it) will rotate in a clockwise direction. If you spin or ply Z on a spindle, the spindle will rotate in a clockwise direction when you look down on it from above.

S is just the opposite. The wheel will turn counter clockwise. The spindle will turn counter clockwise when viewed from above.

Yarn is traditionally spun Z and plied S. I've read that nobody knows why, but if you spin with a spindle, are right handed, and spin the spindle with a motion like snapping your fingers with your right hand, you'll get Z spun yarn. So, it's easier for a right handed person to spin Z on a spindle, and I think that's where this tradition all came from.

For most uses, twist direction doesn't matter, but using yarn with opposite twist directions in the same piece can make a visible difference in the finished item. The fibers are aligned in a different direction and reflect the light differently, so it looks different. The yarn can be all the same dye lot, but look like different colors. If you've ever knitted a sweater in flat pieces and sewn in the sleeve, you know the sleeve color probably looks slightly different right where the seam is, just because the yarn is going in a different direction, even if it's all the same yarn. So, it's usually considered good to have all the yarn for a project spun and plied the same way.

So, I think those two things started the convention that yarn is always spun Z and always plied S.

However, as with a lot of things, if you completely understand the rules, you can see when it's useful to break the rules. Understanding the rules and knowing when to break them should be part of the definition of being an artist. People learn the rules and never break them. As an artist, I've broken them all the time when it makes a better finished piece.

You could, possibly, knit a sweater in "color work" by using all the same dye lot fiber, but spinning lots in opposite directions and using them as different colors. This would be very subtle, but noticeable. I haven't tried this but it would be an interesting experiment that would probably work best in medium to light colors.

I have also read some articles on crochet that insist that yarn spun Z and plied S will tend to untwist the plying twist when crochet, but that yarn that's spun S and plied Z will tend to tighten up the plying twist when it's crochet. I don't crochet much, and haven't tried this. You spinners who crochet might want to test the truth of this.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

SPINNING BASICS: What Yarn Actually Is

I used to blog all the time, and then I got caught up in a forum for knitters, crocheters, etc. called Knitting Paradise. There was a lot of interest in spinning, and I agreed to do a series of posts for them. The posts were in the Main section of the forum, which is reserved for knitting and crochet because there really wasn't a place for them. Since then, there is a new section for Other Crafts, and I'm trying to get them moved there. In the meantime, and going forward, I'd like all the articles collected in one place, so I'm duplicating them here. Look for more in the future.

Every once in a while, there's a topic on here about spinning, and they always get a lot of attention and rack up a lot of pages of comments. On the latest one, we wanted to start a new section for spinning, but Admin said it would have to be a user administered section, and as such, it would invisible to the user unless you signed up for it.

So, we decided to just start posting things with the word "Spinning" at the beginning of the post to make things clearer, and make posts more visible.

So, this is the first one I'm putting up under that agreement. I'm planning to put up some posts that are just basic info about spinning, and a good place to start for those who know nothing about spinning, and I'm starting them with "SPINNING BASICS" so they'll be easier to find.

The first thing I want to say is a disclaimer. Up until about 10 or 12 years ago, almost all yarn was something you could spin (the notable exception was chenille). Around that time, mills started finding ways of making novelty yarns like fun fur and other kinds of yarn with constructions that are bizarre. 

They are excepted from this discussion. Here, I'm discussing the vast majority of commercial yarns and yarns that you can hand spin.

Now that that's out of the way, here we go.

If you take a bunch of loose fibers and grab them at both ends, providing you're not grabbing both ends of the same fibers, you'll find they pull apart easily. The first thing you have to do is find a way of making these fibers longer and making them stay together if you want to make yarn.

If you twist the fibers together tightly enough, the twist makes them compact themselves together into a narrower group. Tightening that up make it harder for the fibers to slip in opposite directions, so adding fiber, little by little in an even stream, and twisting together tightly enough will make a continuous strand that, for all practical purposes, will not pull apart, and you've created the most basic yarn of all: a singles yarn.

This is good, but the twist in the yarn creates a problem. It wants to untwist. At this point, it's what spinners call a "lively yarn." They also call it an unbalanced yarn. It not only tries to untwist, it wants to twist back on itself, kink, and generally fight with you. You can weave with it, but if you try to knit with it, the fabric will bias, and if you, for instance, knit a scarf in stripes, the stripes will be diagonal. You can diminish this quality with blocking (called setting the twist), but it tends to still be there to some extent no matter how hard you try to get rid of it.

If you're spinning yarn and let go of the end, as much of the yarn as isn't fastened down will immediately untwist itself and become fluff again. You have to keep it restrained to keep it from falling apart.

There's another problem, too. A singles yarn is stronger than loose fibers, but it's still not as strong as it could be.

The way to deal with this is plying. If you take two or more singles yarn and twist them together in the opposite direction from the direction they were spun in, you can increase the strength of the yarn tremendously. If you do it properly, and produce a balanced yarn, you can also completely eliminate the tendency of the singles to want to untwist.

If a yarn is unbalanced, for instance, if it has a lot of spinning twist and not much plying twist, or hasn't got much spinning twist and a lot of plying twist, it will act, to some degree, like a singles, and will try to untwist, kink and fight back.

Sometimes, a spinner may do this for a reason, to create a special effect, but usually, it's considered a defect.

What you usually want to create is a balanced yarn, which is one that will lay still and not try to fight back. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you've created a balanced yarn. If you spin something over time, the twist may (to some degree) set itself on the bobbin or spindle. Then, when you ply it, you may be tempted to underply it. The true test of a yarn and it's balance is to wash the finished yarn and let it dry. Then, you'll immediately see if it's balanced. It's a little late then, although it can still be fixed. It's just extra work.

The way to tell for sure if it's balanced is to look at it carefully, and you may need magnification for this. If you're buying magnification, I recommend a linen tester.

To judge how well the yarn is balanced, look at the plied yarn carefully. You'll see the singles twisting around each other, but if you look really carefully, you'll see the individual fibers in the singles. If the yarn is balanced, these fibers will look like they're running parallel with the direction of the yarn. If the singles had a chance to set either on the spindle or bobbin, the yarn may still act lively, but if the individual fibers are straight, when the yarn is washed, you'll see all that liveliness go away.

This is a test that you can apply to commercial yarn, too. Every once in a while, you may notice that you knit something in stockinette, and if you look at the Vs on the right side, you'll see that instead of the nice V you expect, you're getting something that has one leg of the V almost vertical, and the other at a stronger angle than it should. This is because the yarn isn't balanced, and it can change the look of stockinette and fancy stitches, and if it's severe enough, it can make your knitting bias. In other words, if you knit what should be a rectangle, you may actually get a diamond shape. This is the fault of the yarn, not the knitter!

Next time, I'll cover twist direction.